“Discrimination is a form of gaslighting. No one’s actually going to come out and tell you, ‘I’m not going to give you a check because you’re Black or you’re a woman.’”
This sentiment, shared by TechCrunch senior editor Walter Thompson at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference, is all too true. To be fair, companies have made huge advancements in diversity over the last few decades. Mangers now know their businesses need diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to attract the best talent and stay competitive. Corporations are implementing everything from DEI training for leaders to DEI committees for better day-to-day accountability.
But there are still many mountains to conquer. Too often, business leaders with the best of intentions end up working counterproductively. What do you do if you want to leverage DEI as a business leader, if you feel like you’re doing everything you can, but you still have nothing to show for it?
Start with a DEI culture assessment. Ask yourself these three questions (and answer honestly):
- Is my company buying into the myth of meritocracy?
- Are we expecting all of our leaders to behave the same way?
- Are we alienating valuable, diverse talent before they even apply?
These should give you an idea of where the wedge lies between you and a healthy, thriving culture populated by diverse talent.
Is your company buying into the myth of meritocracy?
Every business leader wants to believe their organization is a meritocracy—a perfectly objective, well-oiled machine in which everyone is hired, promoted, and rewarded for their abilities and achievements alone. But the reality faced by underrepresented groups is a minefield of conscious and unconscious biases.
Leslie Feinzaig, founder and CEO of the Female Founders Alliance, felt that reality come crashing down around her in Silicon Valley. Her attempts to raise capital for her startup were going nowhere, despite years of preparation and established sales potential.
“I bought into the whole meritocracy thing,” she says. “I expected that it would be hard, but I also expected that it would be fair. And in reality, it was just kind of a gaslit experience. I felt like I was in this really dark room, and nobody would tell me how to turn on the lights.”
I felt like I was in this really dark room, and nobody would tell me how to turn on the lights.Leslie Feinzaig, Founder & CEO, Female Founders Alliance
Soon after, in 2017, she discovered that only 2.19% of venture capital funding from the previous year had gone to companies founded by women. Seeing that data, Feinzaig remembers thinking, “Oh. That wasn’t personal. That was systemic.”
Underrepresented employees at your company might very well be experiencing the same thing: a system forcing them to stumble around in the dark.
How to Start Seeing Your Corporate Culture for What It Really Is
Hana Mohan, cofounder and CEO of MagicBell, admits that meritocracy “is an idea that we all want to believe in . . . So I think it takes a certain amount of courage and maturity to reject that idea.”
Once you’ve accepted that your corporate culture has its flaws, take a close look at your practices. Review your DEI policy, if you have one (make one if you don’t), and consider bringing in a DEI consultant to shine a light around and give you some DEI tips.
Day to day, here are a few areas to scrutinize:
- Meeting behavior: Are there equal opportunities for everyone to speak? When underrepresented members of a team do speak up, are their ideas met with the same active listening, discussion time, and questions for clarification?
- Promotions: Are most of your managers (including those being groomed for promotion) men or white or cis gender? Do you even know? Is it possible your work environment is lacking the psychological safety needed for underrepresented groups to be their authentic selves and move up in their careers?
- Expectations: Do certain ideas or arguments get dismissed because they don’t use favored jargon or adhere to a particular presentation style? How important is it that your employees reframe their words or behavior just for their bosses to give them the time of day?
To leverage diverse talent at your organization, let go of the idea that you’re living the dream of meritocracy. Until you do, you’ll remain blind to the problems that are killing your company’s DEI initiatives.
Are you expecting all of your leaders to behave the same way?
“The hardest area to diversify is leadership,” says Stephen Bailey, cofounder and CEO of ExecOnline. Despite the difficulty, getting underrepresented groups to excel as leaders is a must for lasting DEI value. And that comes down to two big things:
- Changing your mindset of how leaders should behave
- Rethinking what your existing leaders can offer
“If I’m a white male,” says Bailey, “and I am mentoring a Black female, I might be giving really best-intended advice around how I advanced and succeeded in the organization and encourage them to do the same thing. But if you try to model those same behaviors . . . it can often be disastrous.”
Feinzaig recalls how following conventional wisdom and modeling the behavior of her predecessors simply didn’t work—in fact, it made people not want to work with her. Why? Because most top-selling career advice resources are written for a business world dominated by men.
“When women exhibit traditional masculine ambition traits,” she says, “we come off as unlikeable . . . which, for a woman, is also kind of a kiss of death. You’re a little bit damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
The hardest area to diversify is leadership.Stephen Bailey, Cofounder & CEO, ExecOnline
How to Find Opportunity in Underrepresented Leaders
Attempting to squeeze a diverse workforce into a single mold won’t only cause stress and confusion—it’ll quickly erode the value of diversity. Instead, try to see unconventional leadership as an opportunity.
Focus on the leadership goal. If your organization identifies a leader as someone who inspires people, it shouldn’t matter how they do that.
Does every team in your organization really perform better with daily check-ins? Or weekly reports? Or after-work social outings? Some teams might thrive on that—others, not so much.
Underrepresented individuals are uniquely positioned to model new leadership styles and inspire change from within through DEI insights. To claim a competitive edge, don’t just let these voices blend into your ecosystem—empower them to transform it. Embrace a DEI mission statement to guide leaders in your organization.
Are you alienating valuable, diverse talent before they even apply?
If your DEI policy and intentions are true, be brave enough to share them with the world. Put yourself in the shoes of prospective applicants. In a world where Google sways many of our decisions, a job hunter seeking a diverse workplace can easily validate (or eliminate) you as a choice based on two things:
“If you want to recruit the best people,” says Bailey, “if you want to win the biggest customers, if you want to attract the smartest capital over time, there’s an increasing desire to see a commitment to DEI and to see organizations that look like society.”
People seeking a diverse workforce, whether they’re part of an underrepresented group or not, also want to see proof of accountability. DEI jobs need to show up on multiple tiers, from new hires to appointments to the board.
While that can be a scary prospect for organizations that prefer to keep internal practices to themselves, there’s a bonus to bravery: going public with your DEI mission statement and strategy will actually help force change within your organization.
“Even as a woman,” says Mohan, “when I invest, I have to consciously make sure that at least half of my investments are in women because there are just so many men who are pitching—and pitching loudly.”
In short, making your DEI progress public will attract valuable talent and keep you on track.
How to Be Transparent and Authentic about DEI Insights
Your company needs DEI, so build your DEI policy with authenticity, not tokens and lip service.
If you promise no-tolerance toward sexual harassment, prove it in your DEI mission statements, contract clauses, and responses to employee complaints. If you say you’re committed to supporting diversity in management, publicly announce an initiative to reach a certain numerical goal within a specified timeline—and invest in some of that DEI training for leaders to get there.
As you reach or adjust your goals, publicize that, too—let people know you’re serious by being open about the changes you’re making.
DEI Policy: A Long-haul Commitment to the Future of Work
To stay motivated while building meaningful DEI policy for your company, keep your eye on the prize—otherwise, it can be a truly overwhelming task.
Feinzaig emphasizes that creating equality for underrepresented groups in business isn’t simple. “This is a gigantic gap,” she says. “This is a huge problem, and it doesn’t have a single solution.”
But every company, including yours, can be part of catalyzing the solution. Identify your existing DEI weak points with a DEI culture assessment, embrace DEI consulting, and share DEI insights publicly.
More than anything, don’t forget your diversity maintenance. Talk to the members of underrepresented groups you do have in your organization. After all, their voices represent the future trajectory of your business.